North Highlands sounds like the kind of made-for-postcards town where David Lynch might base a murder mystery. So far as we know, Brenda Malvini thought the same. But after picking up and moving as far away as possible to attend college in Brooklyn, she still named her band after the one place she’s ever run away from. The saying goes, it’s not where you finished, but how you got there that matters. And the Brooklyn quintet’s debut LP, Wild One, is not a work of shame or regret, but a trumpet for individualism that accepts life as process.
It certainly helps Malvini’s case that North Highlands are a band with very little to hide. Their instrumental palette runs wide—they regularly add mandolins, violins and pianos to enhance the standard guitar, bass, and drum patterns—but what’s so startling is how they make such involved arrangements seem so small. Wild One is a big record, but its production is packed to economy size.
“Hiking” opens the record with a sharp staccato guitar riff, only to be smoothed down by a soft piano that turns the prancing song into a stroll. That momentum carries over to “Steady Steady,” where Malvini sounds like she’s guiding the band through a rolling pasture—“Not too fast, and not too serious.”
Only so much of Wild One is so light and free, though. “Best Part” is stripped down and drowsy with the sobering refrain, “I’m sure somebody’s gonna break your heart, and that’s the best part.” Which is either the most bitter or most liberated outlook imaginable, depending on how much you buy into it.
Malvini’s lyrics master this weeble-wobble of reactions. Her voice is soft and direct, but with an ambitious and dynamic pulse that can punch her way through a conversation on “Lion Heart” just as easily as she can coast through the watery exchange of “Fre$ca.” Her lyrics work best as a network of non-sequiturs that get tied together by the visceral context of her band. There’s a whole book of things left unsaid, but it’s preferable to leave it that way than be bogged down under the weight of it.
Wild One keeps pace by cycling its energy as if documenting the highs and lows of a long road trip. The active and upbeat “Lion Heart,” “Benefits” and “Bruce” work as counterweights to the more hushed “Chicago” and “Fre$ca,” while other parts of the record manage to pack both inside a single song’s crescendo.
The most anthemic of those is album closer “Here’s,” the grammar of which suggests there’s something bigger than the parts we’re shown. The communal vocals build from “This is where fun goes to die / This is where love goes to die,” to desperate shouts of “We will grow apart.” True to form, they make the whole exchange sound cheery, as if to suggest it’s only a dismal reality if you neglected fun and love before their demises.
It’d be hard to blame you for feeling left out of the excitement, though. I can’t be sure how intentional the condensed production was, but you get the sense that the catharsis translates a lot more powerfully to a more communal live experience. For all the exuberant yelling and hell-raising drumming, they’ve left a fair amount of their songs’ brash energy on the production floor. And in this attempt to squeeze all of the parts together, they’ve failed to make many of them stick out independently. There’s still plenty to like about the insular production and engaging melodies of Wild One, but I can’t help but think North Highlands have a lot more to offer that doesn’t always show up here. Whatever they’re withholding, let’s hope a second effort isn’t part of it.